Ian Mune, OBE and certified Television Legend, once described himself as a storyteller; that covers his impressively diverse career as well as any. Over six decades of acting, Mune has brought an authentically Kiwi voice to stage and screen. He has directed six movies and two telemovies, most of which he had a hand in writing. One became New Zealand's first big screen comedy hit; one was based on a play originally performed solo; another marked the country's first movie sequel.
Born in 1941, Mune first dabbled in acting while growing in Tauranga. Later he tried to balance theatre and teacher training in Wellington. He abandoned the teaching plans after getting a job at the birth of Downstage Theatre. "I swept a lot of floors, cleared a lot of tables, designed posters, acted and generally worked about an 80-hour week for six pounds." Having directed him in New Zealand, Welshman Gareth Morgan invited Mune to become part of the Welsh Theatre Company. He returned home, determined to "talk my own language".
It was on his return from Wales that Mune's directing career began in a moment of financial desperation: Downstage, having no acting work to offer, asked if he wanted to direct a play. It began to gather steam when he joined Auckland's Mercury Theatre. Soon he was directing and designing a Royal Command Performance of Jenny McLeod's creation story Earth & Sky. As for the writing, after selling a radio play, "I got so excited that I leapt in and wrote two more, then a Pukemanu, a couple of Buck Houses and a play for Crawfords".
Mune made his screen debut in a long forgotten religious programme, followed by a 1971 episode of Pukemanu. As Mune says in this video interview, he rates the series as "revolutionary", partly for its naturalistic acting and Kiwi accents. He played a "scruffy little loser" who fancies himself as a ladies man. Next he was a probation officer in series Section 7. A Listener profile in 1976 described Mune's image as that of a "good Kiwi joker", whose vowels had "never been more rounded than the average blokes". "I'm working class," he added. "I tend to get cast for my 'earthy' qualities".
The Listener article predicted 1976 would be some "sort of Year of the Mune". One week in June 1976, three different productions screened for which he would score a Feltex Television award: he adapted Ian Cross novel The God Boy into a TV movie, acted in his own series Winners & Losers, and starred in popular Trans-Tasman drama Moynihan (as trade unionist Leo Moynihan). Mune says state television then suddenly stopped casting him, and he got busy writing — including children's adventure The Mad Dog Gang Meets Rotten Fred and Ratsguts, which spawned a Feltex Award winning three-part series, a follow-up, and a novel.
The creative roll was partly a matter of physics — one unstoppable energy source colliding with another. Sometime in the early 1970s a friend had introduced Mune to admaker Roger Donaldson. Mune's memory is that before the night was over they'd decided to transform Kiwi cinema: by "combining our strengths — his filmmaking with my writing and working with actors". The conversation would yield results: eight one-off television dramas, seven of them export quality, one locally controversial; and the ambitious Sleeping Dogs (1977), arguably the first New Zealand movie to attract a wide local audience.
Mune and Donaldson began with edgy teleplay Derek (1974), concocting "silly scenes" about a 30-year-old getting fired. Mune starred and co-directed (he writes here about making it). Loosely based on their own experiences, Derek was a "big loud yell" that Mune and co were "going to do it differently", Derek certainly got heard. Mune still revels in repeating some of the letters to the editor: "a piece of garbage"; "uncouth and sordid"; "senseless, meaningless". But even the critics who were unpersuaded could not deny Mune's talent. Barry Shaw compared Mune to Walter Matthau and Tony Hancock, while The Listener's Richard Campion wrote: "Ian Mune is really something. Has anybody else his ability to project the New Zealand common man? The face is ugly, the voice grates, he sings abominably. Yet you watch him like you watch a time-bomb."
In 1975 the duo managed to wangle $25,000 of government funding for The Woman at the Store, based on a moody story by Katherine Mansfield. Again Mune acted and co-directed, but this time his Feltex Award was for his writing contributions. The drama was a test run for an anthology series, for which Mune and Donaldson set out to work their way "from a partnership to independence, by mutual agreement". Winners & Losers (1976) drew from six Kiwi short stories. The pair talk about it here. As Mune writes elsewhere, the pair made the first episodes together, but by the end were directing solo. Mune found time to act in three episodes.
The two Mune directed alone included the affecting Big Brother, Little Sister, the first local screen drama about alienated urban Māori. Mune and Donaldson set off to Cannes to sell the series, pointing the way for others in television to follow. Then Mune maxed out his overdraft traipsing around Europe, attempting to finalise the first of many sales.
Mune then co-wrote (with Arthur Baysting) Donaldson's first movie, Sleeping Dogs (1977). The tale of local dictatorship helped launch the renaissance of Kiwi cinema. Mune co-starred, as a man fighting the state. As he says in documentary The Life of Ian — which explores Mune's career up till 2007 — acting opposite the more "contained" Sam Neill taught him to "stop pulling faces".
Donaldson invited Mune overseas, to work on a Conan the Barbarian script and help with uncredited rewrites on The Bounty. After returning home, Mune was ready to show he could direct movies too — batting one right out of the park with his debut feature, colourful conman caper Came a Hot Friday (1984). Magazine Variety called "a major advance in Kiwi comedy"; Mune's descriptions of the shoot make it sound like the moment he knew he'd found his calling.
Both Came a Hot Friday and The End of the Golden Weather (1991) were based on Kiwi classics from another medium (in the latter case, Bruce Mason's arguably unfilmable one man play). Both films display Mune's keen eye for imaginative recreations of a golden, yet imperfect New Zealand past. Both won multiple awards. Golden Weather also made clear Mune's abilities with novice actors: in the central role of a boy starting to leave childhood behind, 12-year-old Stephen Fulford took away awards at children's film festivals in Italy and Los Angeles. Mune had spent years trying to get the project off the ground, at one point even turning down directing Goodbye Pork Pie.
There were more awards for 1996's The Whole of the Moon — including two for newcomer Nikki Si'ulepa, playing a tough but sensitive cancer patient. Like Friday and Golden Weather, The Whole of the Moon scored a NZ Film Award for Best Film. Earlier, Mune directed two telemovies: thriller The Grasscutter (1988), about an ex terrorist from Northern Ireland on the run downunder, and quirky down'n'out tale Dead Certs (1995).
Mune had turned down Once Were Warriors. In 1999 he found himself helming the sequel, after the previous director left the project close to shoot day. Mune had already been involved in rewrites, looking for ways to find redemption for the wife-beating Jake the Muss. What Becomes of the Broken Hearted? won nine of its 13 NZ Film Award nominations, including Best Director. It remains Mune's biggest commercial success.
In 2011 he made a rare stab at documentary. Billy T: Te Movie explored the life, comic genius and passing of Came a Hot Friday actor Billy T James. The Listener's Fiona Rae called it "an enormously enjoyable ride ... told through the eyes and stories of those close .... this will be a must-see, and down the track, a must-have".
With 70 plus screen roles to date, Mune's acting career could fill an entire profile of its own. Mune has collected seven screen acting awards, and played his share of reliable Kiwi jokers and gruff authority figures — including a judgemental father (in film A Song of Good), Satan and Winston Churchill (cable movie Ike: Countdown to D-Day). There have been award-winning turns as the grandfather in Home Movie, Air New Zealand boss Morrie Davis (Erebus - The Aftermath), and Robert Muldoon (Fallout) — Mune portrayed him as a powerful man who "has isolated himself". In 2021 he featured in euthanasia drama The Pact.
Mune has remained an impassioned yet straight-talking advocate for telling New Zealand stories, outspoken in his belief that creative decisions should be unstifled by bureaucratic interference. Reviewing Mune's self-titled autobiography in 2010, scriptwriter Dean Parker found it "what you'd expect: candid, loyal, intelligent, bemused at funding bodies, and hugely entertaining".
Mune showed further candour in this 1989 Kaleidoscope interview, and in quirky 70-minute documentary The Life of Ian. His collaboration on a short film featuring NZ Drama School students is chronicled here, and his 1996 return to theatre acting here.
Profile written by Ian Pryor; updated on 27 January 2022
Ian Mune, Mune - An Autobiography (Nelson: Craig Potton Publishing, 2010)
'Ian Mune: Kiwi screen legend...' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Andrew Whiteside. Loaded 5 October 2010. Accessed 26 May 2018
Ian Mune, 'If you want it done properly, do it yourself' NZ On Screen website. Loaded 23 May 2018. Accessed 26 May 2018
Roger Donaldson files, Archives New Zealand
Arthur Baysting, 'Ian Mune: It's A Mug's Game' (Interview) - The Listener, 13 March 1972, page 11
Richard Campion, (Review of Derek) - The Listener, 1974 (exact date unknown)
Sarah Daniell, 'Ian Mune' (Interview) - The Listener, 29 January 2005, page 12
Trisha Dunleavy, Ourselves in Primetime: A History of New Zealand Television Drama (Auckland University Press, 2005)
Roger Horrocks, ‘New Zealand Film Makers at the Auckland City Art Gallery: Ian Mune' (Catalogue) 1985
Karen Jackman, 'Ian Mune: Quick Change Artist' (Interview) - The Listener, 17 April 1976, page 14
Ann Lloyd, 'Why Ian Mune is here' (Interview) - The Listener, 31 May 1980, page 44
Mike Nicolaidi, ‘Came a Hot Friday’ (Review) - Variety, 20 February 1985
Dean Parker, 'Book Review: Mune - An Autobiography' - The Write Stuff, issue 22, November 2010
Fiona Rae, 'Billy T: Te Movie review' - The Listener, 16 August 2011
Barry Shaw, 'Comic in the making' (Review of Derek) - The Auckland Star, 28 October 1974